A partially dismantled organ console stood just off stage right, a tall panel in the wall above it removed to reveal the wing of the stage, which was gently tilted forward, as though to slide the players to the floor at the foot of the audience. The stage was adorned with the suggestion of a two-story house framed in aged beams that suggested driftwood; a bed, a two-sided vanity, and a miniature of the set on a table toward the rear of the stage like an optical illusion between mirrors; a catwalk from the house's upper story to the balcony above.
I don't really do reviews here. Recommendations, I do. Raves, I do. And this is both of the latter.
The play is Quantum Theatre's production of After Mrs. Rochester, and if a review is something you'd like, try the Times Literary Supplement; locally the Trib offers a piece about the play and the library in which it is staged. Rather, it's the experience that interests me, tonight in particular.
On our way to the theatre, I and my friends talked a bit about Braddock and especially its universally well-regarded Mayor John Fetterman, someone who looks somewhat more biker than Mayor, but sounds all Mayor as soon as he opens his mouth. His left forearm bears a prominent tattoo of Braddock's zip code, someone said. Though I sat next to him at a talk not long ago, I hadn't noticed. As we pulled up the library, though, a very large man stood on the dark street by the library, and offered friendly suggestion as to where we might park. As he gestured with his left hand, the tattoo came into view -- the Mayor was directing traffic at an alternative theatre event. When we walked by on our way to the show, he shook each of our hands and introduced himself; it looks like glad-handing on the page, but it was far too affable, too casual, to be only that.
Once we were situated, I skimmed the program. I knew the play was a sort of biographical piece about Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea, a 1960's-era book that purported to serve as a prequel of sorts to Jane Eyre, recounting the life of Bertha, the first Mrs. Rochester, the mad woman locked in Rochester's attic for most of Bronte's novel. I knew Jean Rhys was a character at two different ages (portrayed by two different actresses), and I knew as well that Bertha was a character.
And now I need to rewind. Quantum's first production this season, last month, was The Crucible, which they staged in Mellon Park in Shadyside (review). It remains arguably my favorite Quantum performance, the classic play so passionately and inventively rendered, so ably performed. In particular, the Proctors, performed by Robin Walsh and Hugo Armstrong, were simply astonishing. Never on stage have I seen such incredible chemistry, both emotional and physical, and within the strictures of Miller's play the latter was especially striking. Quantum did not meddle with the play's origins or let anachronism spoil its clarity; but even within a period-faithful performance, Armstrong and Walsh breathed each others' breath. That's the only way I can think to describe it; they were so utterly evocative as a couple, and their combined performance suggested what is so often lost in period drama, especially on the stage: the fact that no matter where, no matter when, husbands and wives may and do achieve a degree of intimacy like nothing else on earth. Their performances, never overwrought or oversold, didn't imply marriage or signify it: they exemplified it.
And Walsh herself was a revelation: even within her period dress, the restraint and decorum the role largely requires, she exuded a sensuality difficult to put into words. "Hot" sort of works, but it's incomplete. I couldn't take my eyes off her whenever she was anywhere in view. I didn't want to.
After Mrs. Rochester reunites the two -- Armstrong as, inter alia, Ford Madox Ford, Rhys' lover and first publisher, and as Mr. Rochester himself (Jane Eyre, too, appears, evocatively cast with the same actress who plays Rhys' unnamed daughter); and Walsh, brilliantly, as Bertha.
Walsh's Bertha, rendered without restraint in filthy corset and tangled hair, spouting repetitive creole apostrophes and lurking under and against the skin of Rhys at all ages, the demoness whose exorcism from Rhys' psyche limns the narrative arc of the play, is simply incandescent. And "hot" isn't even the word.
Bertha, as insinuated into this play, is the closest thing to Caliban I've ever seen outside The Tempest -- primal, avaricious, and bereft. Walsh injects such physicality into the role, infuses it with so much force and grief, and extracts (evokes is to weak a word) all of the sympathy for Bertha that Jane Eyre simply doesn't afford. Once again, she was impossible to ignore, lurking over Rhys' shoulder, acrobatically moving between the set's "attic," Rhys' bed and writing table cum vanity, at one point climbing a black ladder behind the organ console to lurk laughing in the shadows. Her vocabulary, perhaps a few dozen words, perhaps a hundred, stunted by the simple adamance of her desire for freedom -- from the attic, from England, from Rhys' mind -- and animated by her lust for some sense of a self she has forgotten, nevertheless is made decadent by the breadth of her expression.
Walsh is not young, is not lithe and glamorous (Karla Boos, Quantum's director who cast herself as the elder Rhys (and who acquitted herself well in a most challenging role -- that of a relatively composed narrator who bestrides the chaos about her that manifests her personal and artistic torment), has the shapely elegance of a woman aging well), but her raw animal fervence, deployed to brilliant effect in both of the abovementioned roles but in very different ways, is nothing short of mesmerizing.
On the way out, standing in front of the library on a dark deserted street in Braddock, a police car pulled up as I spoke into my phone. I demurred to the man on the other end: "Yes Officer?" I inquired. "Is everything okay?" he asked nicely. "Yes, fine, thanks -- just leaving the play." A friendly neighborhood police officer politely asking after my welfare. First the Mayor, now this -- in dilapidated, forgotten Braddock, a compelling show of civic pride.
Braddock has its best foot forward. As does Quantum, which has led off its season with two gems. And as for Walsh, well, I do believe I'm hopelessly smitten.
Visit Braddock; see the show; and enjoy it from deep in the depths of the first of Andrew Carnegie's thousand-plus libraries.